Shell’s crude-free Helix Ultra oil: How do they do it?

In a recent visit to Shell’s top-secret technology centre in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, I was given a behind the scenes tour to see how the Shell scientists create a crystal clear base oil from natural gas. They are able to engineer the molecules to create a base oil with various properties and characteristics. When combined with additives, these create motor oils that offer a superior level of cleaning and protection not possible with crude base oils.

The Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam (STCA)
The Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam (STCA)

The Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam (STCA) is a state-of-the-art location, comprising 80,000 square metres of laboratories, test halls, workshops and offices – comparable to 11 UEFA-sized football pitches – with 70,000 metres of pipelines and 900 small and large technical installations. Shell spends approximately 1 million dollars per day on research and development at this Amsterdam facility.

In order to ensure flexibility, the laboratories and test halls are equipped in accordance with a plug and-play principle. This allows different test installations and test equipment to be set up as required. The majority of these test installations and test equipment are designed and built in-house at STCA. The technicians in the Experimental Installations Department are responsible for this and possess all possible metalworking techniques. Such as a lathe from 1948, (that is still used on a weekly basis) and, since 2012, a 3D printer that can produce metal components (e.g. titanium, Inconel and cobaltchromium). As a result, it is possible to “print” parts that were previously impossible to manufacture. The printer is also used by NASA for the construction of its newest generation of rockets.

It’s behind these walls where Shell’s scientists work their magic to create new formulas for these class leading lubricants. Once perfected, the “recipes” are reproduced at Shell’s massive Pearl gas-to-liquid plant in Qatar in the Middle East. The Qatar plant is made from enough steel to build 10 Eiffel Towers and spans the equivalent of 453 football pitches. This enormous plant can produce up to 30 000 litres of base oil per day, approximately 1 million tonnes per year.


The GTL process can sound pretty complex, but the infographic below shows the basic steps to the process (Click to enlarge):


Aside from cleansing, what other benefits does Shell Helix Ultra with PurePlus Technology deliver to drivers?

As well as keeping the engine clean, Shell Helix Ultra also helps remove sludge left behind with inferior oils. On top of enhanced cleansing, Shell Helix Ultra with PurePlus Technology provides superior wear and corrosion protection, and helps to provide superior resistance to oil degradation beyond the latest industry standards, even at the longest manufacturer recommended oil drain intervals. For drivers, all of this helps to extend engine life and reduce maintenance costs.
The lower viscosity oils in the range help with fuel economy too. The benefits vary depending on the viscosity grade, but can deliver up to 3% greater fuel economy.

What exactly is Shell PurePlus Technology and what role does it play in the new generation of Shell Helix Ultra motor oils?

Shell PurePlus Technology is a revolutionary gas-to-liquids process developed by Shell, which converts natural gas into a crystal-clear base oil with virtually none of the impurities found in crude oil. Base oils are the key component of finished lubricant products, making up on average 75-90% of the end product. This pure, clear base oil enables Shell to develop superior lubricants. To this patented Shell PurePlus Technology we add our proprietary Active Cleansing Technology. The unique combination of Shell PurePlus Technology with Active Cleansing Technology enables Shell Helix Ultra to deliver even higher levels of cleansing and protection for today’s engines.

Base oil
On the left you can see the crystal clear base oil produced from natural gas. The final product is on the far right after various additives have been added for viscosity and performance.

Active Cleansing Technology has been a key ‘ingredient’ of Shell Lubricants for a while now. How does this work with Shell PurePlus Technology?

Active Cleansing Technology has always been at the heart of Shell Helix. Active Cleansing Technology is proprietary to Shell and consists of special additives that work to help protect the engine against performance-robbing deposits. It is specially formulated to clean as it protects, helping prevent the build-up of dirt where you can’t see it, but where it really matters.
The unique combination of Shell PurePlus Technology with Active Cleansing Technology enables Shell Helix Ultra to deliver even higher levels of cleansing and protection, meaning that no other motor oil keeps your engine closer to factory clean. Shell believes this a significant step forward in keeping engines clean, which provides the basis for the next generation of motor oils designed to protect engines now and in the future.

This new Mercedes-Benz motor was run for a 100 000km test using Shell’s new Helix Ultra with PurePlus Technology oil. The results were astounding with the motor showing barely no signs of wear or dirt build-up.

What are the main benefits of a synthetic motor oil over a mineral-based oil?

Synthetic oils are manufactured from crude oil or natural gas using advanced chemical processes. Their molecular structure, and hence their properties, can be closely controlled and reliably tailored to meet the requirements of modern engine manufacturers.

There are two types of synthetic engine oil:

  • Fully synthetic, which uses 100% synthetic base stock to achieve higher performance levels than both synthetic technology and mineral oils. Shell Helix HX8 Synthetic, and top-of-the-range Shell Helix Ultra with PurePlus Technology are fully-synthetic motor oils.
  • Synthetic technology, which uses both synthetic and mineral base stocks to achieve higher performance levels than mineral oils alone. Shell Helix HX6 and HX7 oils fall into this category.

Synthetic oils are of higher purity than mineral based oils, which means fewer unwanted components. Their more uniform molecular composition results in superior flow properties, thereby improving engine efficiency and fuel economy. Also, their viscosity changes less with temperature compared with a normal mineral oil, meaning that the oil does not become too thick when cold or too thin when hot, which helps to reduce engine wear at temperature extremes.

How does Shell Helix test their lubricants?

All of our motor oils undergo rigorous testing to ensure they meet all major international industry and vehicle manufacturer standards. All these oils must pass a series of engine tests in different types of engines and conditions, as well as a number of other laboratory tests. Each test looks at a particular area of performance, such as temperature, oxidation and wear.
Even though not required by industry standards, we have also conducted millions of miles of vehicle fleet and taxi testing of our finished Shell Helix Ultra products containing base oils produced from Shell PurePlus Technology.

Shell Helix has a long-standing relationship with Ferrari. How does this support your work on developing motor oil for road cars?


Shell’s relationship with Ferrari dates back to the 1930s, and exists both on and off the F1 race track. The technical partnership with Ferrari provides us with a valuable test bed where we identify opportunities for the future of passenger car motor oil technology. The Shell team works directly with Scuderia Ferrari to develop the oil specifically for their Formula One race cars. From this work, they are learning things all the time and passing this knowledge from the Formula One™ car to the road. The same technology, and the components of the oil and some of the additives are developed into formulations you can use on the road. As with any process of development, many more ideas are tested than actually make it to production.

1L_Helix_Ultra_5W_40Want to give it a try – Where can I get some?

Shell Helix Ultra with Pure Plus Technology is available now at Shell forecourts worldwide and throughout South Africa.

Check out the video above for more info and to see the benefits of Shell Helix Ultra with PurePlus Technology.

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